Thursday, August 15, 2013


Harry Targ

The Cold War began in 1917 as Woodrow Wilson marshaled money and political allies at home and abroad to isolate, subvert, and finally send troops to overthrow the new Bolshevik Revolution. After 15 years of non-recognition and economic blockade and seven years looking the other way as the Nazi war machine grew and grew, the United States collaborated with the militarily powerful Soviet Union to defeat fascist armies in Europe and the Far East. 

After World War II, Cold War II started. The United States built a massive war machine, the biggest in world history, to challenge the global presence and influence of the Soviet Union. However, by the 1970s, with growing challenges to U.S. global power, the Nixon Administration launched a policy of “d├ętente,” that is, warming of relations with its Cold War adversary. 

Detente did not last as President Carter resumed the Cold War in 1979, by sending funds to help anti- government religious fundamentalist guerrillas fight the central government of Afghanistan, at that time allied with the Soviet Union. President Reagan in 1981 returned full-force to the Cold War spending more on defense during his first term, than all that was spent on the military throughout U.S. history. The enormous military expenditures, domestic economic crises, and declining political legitimacy of Soviet Bloc countries led to their collapse. The former Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

Now the Cold War is being resumed with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The size and name of the enemy country has changed but the key foreign policy decision-makers in Washington have not. Some, the “neo-conservatives” who dominated the Bush foreign policy team, argue that as the most powerful country in the world, the United States must take the opportunity to construct a world order based on political regimes we prefer. If we have the power, they say, use it. 

And since the 1990s they have excoriated the other foreign policy faction, the “humanitarian interventionists” who dominated the Clinton presidency of the 1990s and seem to be influencing Obama foreign policy today. For the humanitarian interventionists U.S. foreign policy is not just about using American power. It is also about making the world a better place, at the point of a gun, through global propaganda, using the debt system to require countries receiving aid to change their economies, and sanctimoniously condemning others for not measuring up to U.S. standards of justice.

In the end, these foreign policy elite factions are two sides of a singular coin. They both advocate strong militaries. They both promote U.S. military institutions around the world. They both express criticisms of the shortcomings of others as to democracy, human rights, and so-called free markets and development.

Neither faction understands that the 21st century international system is radically different than the one that existed during the height of the Cold War. The relative power of the United States militarily, economically, and ideologically is declining. New giants, China, India, and Brazil, for example, are encroaching on a once hegemonic international economic and political order. Countries of the Global South, in Latin America particularly, are coalescing around reformist agendas to transform their place in global society. Grassroots movements everywhere are rising up, not only against their own repressive regimes but the entire international system. And the newly emerging great powers, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have been meeting to discuss transforming global institutions and processes.

The Obama foreign policy team, largely humanitarian interventionists but egged on by neoconservatives in the executive branch and the Congress, believes the U.S. can still influence global policy by condemning competing powers. They claim they are motivated by the good; for example condemnation of Russia’s odious homophobic policies. But they really are trying to turn back the clock.

Liberal media support the humanitarian interventionists and frame the narrative of today’s U.S./Russian conflict as one between the altruistic former and the dictatorial latter. Putin is driven by his own quest for absolute power at home. As in the cases of prior Cold Wars, according to liberal commentators, Putin supports evil regimes in the world: Iran and Syria for example. In addition, he gleefully gives a home to whistleblower Edward Snowdon. And, while America institutionalizes a racist “new Jim Crow” system of criminal justice, commentators appropriately castigate the Russians for their horrific repression of gays and lesbians, and at the same time imply mistakenly that the United States is the standard for human rights.

In short, as in the old days of the Cold Wars from Wilson through Reagan, the renewed narrative, which seems to be moving toward a new Cold War, is about “good guys versus bad guys,” not one in which new powers, from the streets to the networks of countries from the Global South are saying “enough is enough” to  traditional imperial powers.